Dancing through life

Kathlyn Hotynski

Those closest to senior Sabrina Gilchrist would agree that it is her zest for life and genuine love for others that make her stand out as an individual.

She dances with the UW-Eau Claire Concert Dance Company; is taking eight private dance lessons and works as a secretary at En Avant School of Dance, 3330 N. Town Hall Road; coaches Regis High School’s dance team; and serves as the chaplain for her sorority (Alpha Xi Delta) – all on top of her regular schoolwork and academic duties.

Gilchrist, an English major and dance minor, is truly a kid at heart, junior Patrick Orlopp said.

Orlopp, a friend of Sabrina’s, said it is not uncommon for Gilchrist to call or show up at his door just to play in the rain.

“She basically wears rose-colored glasses,” Orlopp said, on Gilchrist’s outlook on life. “She laughs more than anyone I know. It really brightens up everyone else around her.”

Last semester Gilchrist made it a mission to meet a new person every day, said dance professor Toni Poll-Sorensen, who has been one of Sabrina’s instructors for nearly four years.

“She would come in and say ‘I made someone smile today!’ or ‘I made a new friend!'” Poll-Sorensen said. “It was pretty wonderful.”

Poll-Sorensen said she thinks more people could afford to reach out to others as Gilchrist does.

“She’s very open and very friendly,” she said. “(She is) a very loving human being. She opens herself up to everyone.”

But there is a lot more to Sabrina than her bubbly personality.

“Sabrina is a really energetic, fun and happy person, but she is also extremely disciplined,” her mother Denise Gilchrist said. “She’s very focused (and) committed to anything she does. She always gives more than 100 percent and has very high expectations for herself. I think she is extremely motivated.”

Sabrina Gilchrist said she enjoys staying busy, which explains her extensive involvement in various on- and off-campus activities.

Denise Gilchrist said that though her daughter has many responsibilities, she does a good job of balancing all of them without becoming fixated on just one.

“There are a lot of people older than her that don’t have that,” she said. “I’m very proud of her because of the integrity she has and because of all of the challenges she’s met and overcome – her principles and values.”

The life of a dancer
Gilchrist has always had a lifelong passion for dance, her mother said.

When her daughter was three years old, she received her first ballerina outfit: little ballet slippers, pink tutu and leotard, Denise Gilchrist recalled fondly.

“She danced and danced around the living room,” she said. “That was her first formal dance performance. . I think she loved dance from the day she could walk – she didn’t just walk; she always danced and pranced and twirled. She was always a happy little girl.”

Though modern dance is Sabrina’s favorite dance style, she has experience with point, ballet, tap, jazz, belly, hip-hop, improvisational and contact improvisational dance.

Dancing is one of Sabrina Gilchrist’s main stress relievers, she said.

“My whole mind can just go blank. All I see is the choreography,” Gilchrist said. “It’s so much of an energy release. You don’t have to worry about anything else.”

Heather Schwahn, Gilchrist’s dance instructor at En Avant, said Sabrina’s personality and passion for life really shine when she is dancing.

“She’s very strong and really expressive,” she said. “Her facials are just fabulous. You’ll look at the (dance) line and stop on her.”

Schwahn said she first met Gilchrist when she first started lessons with the studio at age 12.

“She did catch up really quickly. At 12, you wouldn’t have known she didn’t have experience and (the others) did.”

Despite Gilchrist’s late start, Schwahn said her dedication, focus and intelligence allowed her to build from criticism and improve steadily with each week.

In fact, Schwahn said Gilchrist is one of the studio’s best tap dancers, even though Sabrina started tap only two years ago.

“I have great respect for her,” Schwahn said. “She’s a bit of an overachiever. Sometimes she takes on too much, but she’s always there for practice. . She’s that dedicated.”

Schwahn said she has sent Gilchrist home from practice a few times because Sabrina would arrive at the studio exhausted from all of her other responsibilities.

Though Gilchrist does not have time for a typical job, she babysits Schwahn’s five-year-old daughter Emma to pay for dance lessons and costumes at En Avant.

Babysitting eventually became too much of a time commitment, Gilchrist said, and Schwahn now allows her to work as a secretary at En Avant for a few hours each Sunday afternoon.

“(Schwahn) is really taking one for me,” Gilchrist said. “She knows how much I love (dance), so she’s doing everything she can to help me do it.”

Commitment to Regis
Gilchrest said she began spreading her love for dance when she began as an assistant coach for Regis High School’s dance team when she was a senior in high school.

Since then, she has transformed what was a pom squad without a coach to a dance team that returns from state competitions with trophies in hand.

The girls qualified for state competition the last three years, placing second in 2006 and fourth in 2005.

“I can almost guarantee it’s all because of her,” Regis High School senior and team captain Jennifer Dewitz said. “She’s the reason there’s a dance team at all.”

Gilchrist said fans now travel to La Crosse just to watch the girls compete at state.

Gilchrist said there was never that level of support when she danced for Regis’ team.

“We were just the halftime show,” she said.

Denise Gilchrist said she has seen her daughter overcome a long list of obstacles, from organizing fundraisers to wading through paperwork to developing support from the administration and fans.

“For her it was that important because it was that important to the kids,” she said. “She wasn’t just in it for the performance. She dedicated so much to be there to support those kids. Her dedication and commitment goes way beyond a person of her age.”

Sabrina left her coaching position last year because the time commitment became too demanding, but returned this year after the girls begged her to come back, Schwahn said.

“She has a really strong understanding of technique and she has a really good eye,” she said. “She’ll say ‘Oh, you’re hyperextending your arm,’ or ‘You’re leaning back.’ . She kind of pushes hard, but in a good way.”

Each girl has the opportunity to choreograph a song, which Gilchrist said is a good teaching tool.

“I’m not teaching them to be dancers,” she said. “They’re dancers already. I teach them to be teachers.”

Beyond a coach-athlete relationship, Gilchrist has developed a special bond with each girl.

“She cares not only about dance, but all of us personally,” said Dewitz, who has danced under Gilchrist’s leadership for six years, since she was in seventh grade. “I don’t just think of her as a coach. By now, she’s my best friend. Most of my mannerisms and personality come from her.”

Regis High School junior and team member Clare Bohrer said the girls turn to Gilchrist for advice on anything from dancing to high school drama to injuries.

“I think she’s the smartest person I know,” she said. “She has great leadership and we respect her so much. She knows what she’s talking about. . She’s gorgeous dancing. I always looked up to her so much.”

Denise Gilchrist, who tries to attend as many of her daughter’s and the team’s performances as possible, said she thinks much of the team’s success stems from their emotional closeness.

“I think because she does such a good job of making them feel good about themselves, they will do anything in their power to do a good performance,” she said. “They know how important they are to her.”

Eye on the future
Although Sabrina Gilchrist said she is passionate about dancing, she loves teaching more.

She said she plans to become a college literature professor and possibly coach a dance team if she has time.

“I can see all the flaws in my own dancing; I’m kind of a perfectionist,” she said with a laugh. “I’d be constantly focusing on what I’m doing wrong. I don’t think I’m strong enough in one genre (to pursue dancing as a career).”

Though Gilchrist said she doesn’t plan on dancing professionally, she said dance – especially coaching the dance team – will help her in the classroom.

“It’s definitely shown me if you explain it one way, three of the girls get it, and another way, three more get it and another way, everyone will get it,” she said. “You have to be able to explain (information) in a variety of ways; then people will understand you.”

Gilchrist said she plans to graduate in spring 2008 and “then it’s on to grad school.”

Poll-Sorensen said she isn’t looking forward to the day Gilchrist graduates.

“I clearly hope when Sabrina graduates she keeps in touch,” Poll-Sorensen said. “Those long-term relationships don’t come with every student. I’m not excited to have her graduate because I hate to lose students like that, but I am excited to hear about what she’ll end up doing.”

One in a million
Orlopp said every time he sees Gilchrist, she has another story of how she helped someone, be it proofreading a term paper or helping someone with boyfriend problems.

“She is possibly the nicest person I know, or in the whole world,” Orlopp said, adding Gilchrist is still an extremely modest person.

Poll-Sorensen agreed.

“She’s not the person who would seek out recognition, she’d probably rather slip into the background,” she said.

Denise Gilchrist said her daughter highly values the relationships in her life.

“If you’re her friend, she’s your friend until you turn her away and even then,” she said.

Whether it’s getting involved in philanthropy through Alpha Xi Delta, inviting 30 dancers over for a homemade pancake breakfast the morning of a major recital or sketching and painting a mural of Ariel, Emma’s favorite Disney princess, Schwahn agreed Gilchrist is always thinking of others.

“She’s just a dream,” she said. “She’s fabulous. She’s Sabrina. She’s just one in a million.”